Galt High School Board members this week continued to spar over how much the school district should be involved with the Galt District Chamber of Commerce.
During a meeting on Tuesday, Trustee Sue Roberts read aloud a letter by former board member Pat Maple to Superintendent Tom Gemma. That letter detailed Maple's misgivings about contributions made by the chamber's political action committee in support of certain board members.
"When board members (Art) Oelsner and (Norman) Pearson participated in the discussion of this action and voted to approve, they flagrantly violated the public trust," Maple said in his letter.
Maple was reacting to a dispute that flared last month, when board members debated whether to accept an anonymous cash donation that was intended to be used as the district membership fee for the chamber.
While trustees Pearson, Oelsner, Terry Parker-Owning and Gus Prouty say the district can only benefit from the relationships made by being a member of the chamber, Board Member Sue Roberts said it isn't ethical for the district to belong to an organization that endorses candidates.
"I don't think (the district) belongs to any other organization that does that," Roberts said.
Her critics say that Roberts' feelings stem from not getting endorsed by the chamber's political action committee, known as Business United for Good Government, or BUGG. Roberts said she doesn't need BUGG to win elections.
Politics and education
BUGG has played an active role in district dealings for years.
The group spent more than $11,000 in campaign literature, mailings, print advertisements and consultants in support of Measure B, the bond measure that helped fund Galt Joint Union High School District's new Liberty Ranch High School.
BUGG has also invested several thousand dollars to endorse school board candidates, including three of the five sitting board members.
Ann Ullrich, an active BUGG member and former president of the chamber's board, said BUGG made its endorsements based on how the candidates answered questions in an interview. Ullrich said that the committee was looking for candidates who were business-friendly and would help the district meet, or exceed, educational standards.
Several board members say the district's tie to the chamber of commerce is essential for building relationships in the community and improving student education.
Gus Prouty, who was appointed to the board in July, said the district needs a voice in the chamber, especially as it enhances its career and technical programs.
Such a program, which would prepare students to enter the workforce, needs input from the businesses that could potentially employ Galt students, Prouty said.
Prouty also noted that building good relationships with local businesses is part of the board's mission statement.
Oelsner said business is the reality of the world and an engaged school district is a benefit to the people the board is trying to serve.
Pearson said Galt businesses have been very active in supporting student activities. He said the district's partnership with the chamber is one worth keeping.
Roberts doesn't agree with Pearson, though.
She said she doesn't have anything against the chamber; she just doesn't understand how the district can be a member of an organization that endorses candidates.
"I guess I'm just being stubborn or stupid, but I just don't get it," Roberts said.
In response to accusations made by Roberts, board members Art Oelsner and Pearson denied receiving any campaign contributions from BUGG at a Dec. 18 board meeting.
Support through 'independent expenditures'
A review of both candidates' campaign expenditures show that neither Oelsner nor Pearson received any cash contributions from BUGG.
However, records from the Sacramento County Office of Voter Registration and Elections show that BUGG spent approximately $1,500 in independent expenditures in 2004 in support of Pearson's campaign. The group spent nearly the same amount of money in independent expenditures backing Oelsner and Trustee Terry Parker-Owning in 2006.
According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, an independent expenditure is money spent by an organization on some sort of communication, usually campaign mailers or print advertisements, that advocates the election or defeat of a candidate without the candidate's knowledge.
Ullrich said none of the candidates were told how much money BUGG would spend endorsing them, nor were they told how that money was going to be spent.
"We don't call them up and say we're going to spend $1,400 on you," Ullrich said.
Ullrich added that not only did BUGG support candidates for the school board, but they also supported candidates for Galt City Council and voiced their thoughts on many statewide issues.
It's not odd that the Galt High School District is a member of the chamber, Ullrich said. She said most school districts are members of their local chambers.
Lodi Unified School District has been a member of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce since 1985, according to that chamber's Web site.
Moreover, Ullrich said, most chambers have political action committees.
"Why this is even an issue is beyond me," Ullrich said.
In his letter to Gemma, Maple said that by not reporting BUGG's expenditures to the FPPC, Pearson, Oelsner and Parker-Owning are in violation of government code.
However, Pearson doesn't see it that way.
"I've never denied that they did endorse me, but I don't have any control over it," Pearson said.
He likens BUGG's efforts to support him to somebody making a campaign poster with his name on it and putting in their yard. He asks, is he supposed to stop at that person's house and ask how they paid for the sign so he can put it on his expense report?
Oelsner doesn't agree either.
"I don't want people to think of 'liar' and 'Sue Roberts' in the same sentence, but she has a habit of saying things that aren't true," Oelsner said.
According to Roman Porter, spokesman for the FPPC, candidates are not required to report independent expenditures made on their behalf because that would indicate that the candidate had prior knowledge of the expenditure.
Roberts said that whether candidates knew about expenditures made in support of them isn't the issue, she just doesn't feel that being involved with a group that endorses candidates is a mark of good, transparent government.
"If you want the politics out of education, then why do you involve yourself in a political organization?" Roberts asked.
One thing that board members can agree on, is that the ongoing argument is a distraction to the job they're supposed to be doing, mainly running the school district.
"Arguing about the prior election at every meeting is counterproductive," Prouty said.
Prouty said the board should focus on more important and immediate matters, including opening Liberty Ranch High School.
"I would like to put it to rest somehow," he said. "There's nothing more that I'm going to do."